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It’s surprising sometimes how the work of an artist can get buried under the mythology that gets created around them. Such is the case of Polish-Russian painter Tamara de Lempicka, the darling of Art Deco, portraitist for the in-crowd of the 1920s, very nearly an art historical afterthought. Though de Lempicka was a more than competent artist, what I find most fascinating about her is the way she created a brand for herself in much the same way as Madonna and Lady Gaga have in more modern times. These days, artists (mostly singers and actors) are built and marketed like products. If you don’t believe me, just ask Miley Cyrus.

Auto-Portrait: Tamara in the Green Bugatti (Tamara de Lempicka, 1925)

What made de Lempicka successful, on top of her talent as a painter, was her ability to make the right moves to connect with the right people in the right places. Born into aristocracy, her first marriage to a dashing young Moscow attorney was a calculated affair. When the Russian revolution exiled them to Paris sans fortune, Tamara orchestrated her way into the Parisian social elite and by the middle of the 1920s she was knocking down high commissions for portraits of the Cool Kids of the era.

Her lifestyle during the Roaring Twenties was epitomized the fast and decadent times. Everything about her was high-profile; her affairs (with both men and women), her wild partying, her clothes and cars and important friends. Slavishly devoted to her public image, she neglected her daughter and sent her husband back to Poland to find a more conventional wife. She became the darling of the Paris Lesbian community and was celebrated across Europe as the prototype for the modern, independent woman.  When she needed a new spouse, she found herself a Baron. When she escaped Europe on the eve of the Second World War, she and her extravagant lifestyle went straight to Hollywood.

Wrapped up in her bizarre tale of excess and depravity, the story of a very good painter is almost lost. Her portrait style is a kind of chilling Precisionism that also borrows from masters like Caravaggio and Botticelli and, in all honesty, I find it a little harsh when applied to the human form. But she was also a prolific painter of abstracts and still lifes, especially in her later years when her popularity had faded and old age crept up on her.

City of Rocks II (Tamara de Lempicka, 1947)

By the time Dear Tamara died in 1980, under the care of her neglected daughter, she was enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The art world had rediscovered her and her paintings were again commanding high prices. Among her many fans are celebrities Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, and, weirdly enough, Madonna. As recently as last year she was the subject of a major retrospective at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome. Just last month, Sotheby’s sold one of her paintings at auction for the tidy sum of $572,000. She’s back!

It’s a fascinating story, one of rising and falling and rebirth, not unlike how I would like my own life to turn out. If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be trying to get herself on Bravo’s Work of Art. Talent isn’t enough these days, and probably wasn’t enough in the 1920s. You have to find and angle and work it. Tamara de Lempicka found her angle.




One Comment

  1. Hello,
    My name is Marisa Doporto and I am Tamara’s great grand daughter. Please check the last selling price for Tamara”s painting, because I beleive you are missing a 0!!! Ha ha
    The portrait of Marjorie Ferry (1932) sold for close to 6,000,000!!! (there is a live video of the sale at Sotheby’s on You Tube)
    Very nice site by the way. Enjoyed your comments.

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